Judge rules family of man in Rohnert Park Taser death can sue police department, not officers

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A federal judge ruled the family of a Forestville man who died two years ago while being held facedown on the floor of a motel room by Rohnert Park police can take to trial their civil rights claim against the city’s Public Safety Department, but they cannot sue the individual officers.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar said the family of Branch Wroth provided enough evidence supporting their claim the city failed to adequately train its officers about the risks of asphyxiating people while restraining them that a jury could decide in their favor.

Tigar noted in his 27-page April 22 ruling that the city didn’t identify any specific training provided to officers “regarding the interaction of restraint techniques and asphyxia.”

He said “to the extent that Rohnert Park provided any training to these officers, that training actually appears to have undermined awareness of positional asphyxia.”

Rohnert Park city officials didn’t respond Tuesday to an inquiry seeking comment on the decision or the city’s restraint policies. A lawyer representing the city also didn’t respond to a message asking questions about the case.

Wroth, 41, was pronounced dead on May 12, 2017, less than an hour after Budget Inn employees called police about a “very disoriented person” who hadn’t left his room by checkout time, according to official reports. Wroth was high on methamphetamine and mostly naked, convinced his clothing was poisoning him, the court filings and body camera video showed.

He resisted arrest by officers who came to his motel room. The officers got him to the ground, shocked him with a stun gun, hit him with a flashlight and restrained his arms and legs, according to the records. Then he stopped breathing, the video and reports showed.

A Sonoma County pathologist classified Wroth’s death as a homicide, determining he had a heart attack after struggling with law enforcement officers while under the influence of meth. A homicide finding only means a person died at the hands of another without implying criminal liability.

Wroths’ parents, Marni and Chris Wroth of Mount Shasta in Siskiyou County, claim their son suffered a heart attack because the officers suffocated him. The first officer to arrive was “determined to take him into police custody rather than address his obvious medical needs,” according to their complaint.

But the judge in his order agreed with the city’s arguments that the officers involved in the incident were immune from civil liability because there is no clearly established law or court finding for how long restraining a person in the manner they did might cause someone to die from positional asphyxiation. The judge also found no evidence showing the officers had any improper motives in their effort to detain Wroth.

The lawsuit named Officers David Sittig-Wattson, Mike Werle, Matt Huot and his brother, Sean Huot, and Sgt. Eric Matzen as defendants.

“The Court agrees that the use of force under these circumstances, without more, does not permit a jury to reasonably conclude that officers ‘were motivated by a nefarious purpose,’ ” the ruling stated.

Rohnert Park training materials included in the court documents show the city’s officers were taught that “there is little scientific evidence to support the notion that prone restraint results in life-threatening respiratory compromise or asphyxia” and “it is faulty to theorize weight on back, in the prone position creates asphyxia sufficient to cause death.”

Izaak Schwaiger, the Wroths’ attorney, said they hope to secure a jury verdict that will force the department to protect people being taken into custody from preventable death.

“They’re ignoring the risk,” Schwaiger said. “How often does the risk present itself? How often are officers putting people prone on the ground in handcuffs? Daily.”

The civil trial is scheduled to start June 3 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

The Wroths filed the lawsuit in September 2017, four months after their son’s death. Their claims fall under a federal statute that applies when a government entity or its officer causes death, depriving them of the right to be with their son and receive the comfort and support of a family member. They are seeking unspecified damages.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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